Wednesday, June 5, 2024

Con Man & Gambler Jefferson R. 'Soapy' Smith ~ Julie Lence

courtesy Denver Post
 Jefferson R. Smith was born into a wealthy Georgia family in 1860. By the end of the Civil War, his family was in financial ruin and moved to Texas, where Jefferson received a good education, due in part to his father’s position as a lawyer, and became an eloquent speaker. But proficient in speech didn’t net him a job, so he hired on with a cattle drive to Abilene, Kansas. He made good money, but while in Abilene, Jefferson’s attention was snagged by a con man and the ‘what walnut shell is the pea hidden beneath?’ game. Jefferson lost the money he made on the cattle drive, and found his calling in life as a gambler and con man.

       Having the gift of gab, he spent the next decade roaming the west and perfecting his skills, determined to be the best poker player. He made his way to Leadville, Colorado in 1885 and met up with Old Man Taylor, whose reputation pegged him the King of the Shell Game. The two joined forces and set up a con involving bars of soap. Taylor would blend in with the crowd while Jefferson, using a tripod and suitcase, would set out several bars of soap and invite people to play a game, hooking their interest with the line, ‘Cleanliness is next to godliness, friends, so step right up and watch me very carefully’. Players were to find the greenbacks he’d hidden within the bars of soap. Taylor would volunteer to be the first plyer and find the $100 bill, giving others the incentive to try their luck, but most only 5 cents, while Jefferson and Taylor raked in the cash, though Jefferson didn’t always keep the money for himself. He gave substantially to churches, widows, the poor, and often paid for the funerals of the girls from the red-light district, and never would he con the townsfolk. His games were strictly for unsuspecting tourists.

         Jefferson eventually left Leadville for Denver, where he added singing and joke telling to his routine. A complaint was filed against him and the sheriff, when filling out the paperwork, couldn’t remember Jefferson’s name but remembered the complaint had something to do with soap, so he wrote Soapy Smith and the nickname ‘Soapy’ stuck.

Soapy went on to become a successful gambler in Denver and opened his own saloon, Tivoli Saloon and Gambling Hall, with the Latin inscription Caveat Emptor (Let the Buyer Beware) above the door. He also formed a gang and a bond with the police department, which benefited both sides. Soapy helped the poor, especially at Thanksgiving by giving out turkeys so none were stolen, and by donating to churches. He even rescued an innocent girl from a detective agency trying to force a confession from her. Eventually, he learned of the silver boom in Creede, Colorado and left Denver for more riches.

In Creede, he formed another gang and put into motion taking control of the town, much to the dislike of rival Bob Ford, better known as the man who killed Jesse James. Ford wanted in on the controlling of Creede, and a third party arranged a meeting between them before bloodshed broke out. The two agreed to keep out of each other’s way, but Soapy went on to build the New Orleans Club with his longtime pal, Joe Simmons. From there, Soapy and his gang did take control of Creede, with Soapy still helping the poor. But the townsfolk tired of Soapy’s control and he went back to Denver and opened a ticket office, where he advertised tickets to Chicago for $5. Another scam, as when people tried to buy these tickets, he told them they were only sold on certain days, of which the present day was not one of them. With Colorado’s governor looking to clean up the lawlessness in Denver, he called in the militia to run Soapy out of town, but Soapy hunkered down in city hall with dynamite, threatening to bomb the building if the militia fired at him. Federal troops from Fort Logan were brought in to keep the peace. The governor withdrew the militia and finally ran Soapy out of town.

Making his way to Mexico, Soapy joined forces with Mexican president, Porfirio Diaz and set up other scams. But when he tried to convince Diaz that Mexico needed a foreign legion and set up a recruiting office for a hefty price, his scam was discovered and the deal broken.

1897 found Soapy heading to Skagway, Alaska when news of the Gold Rush broke. There he built another saloon/casino under the name Jeff’s Place, assembled another gang and used his winnings to open a phony telegraph office; the wires were under water and folks ‘often’ received word from back home to send money, of which Soapy kept. Eventually he stole $3,000 from a miner and a vigilante group demanded he pay it back. Hearing about the meeting the vigilantes were holding on the docks, Soapy armed himself and went, only to meet up with Frank Reid, a foe of Soapy’s. Soapy struck Reid with the butt of his rifle. Reid fired at Soapy and missed. The two got into a scuffle, with guns firing again. Soapy was killed and Reid died almost 2 weeks later from his injuries.

Soapy is buried on the outskirts of Skagway’s cemetery. A plain marker gives the dates of his birth and death. He was 38 and left behind an estate of $250.

1 comment:

Ruthie Manier said...

Interesting read. Soapy was quite the character. Buyers beware. Thank you.